Arch Rock is just the start of what Mackinac Island has to offer, and some of its best views are removed from the touristy circuit.
Mackinac Island is the perfect place to forget the world—no traffic, no trouble, ample fudge.
But it’s also the perfect place to connect with the world—as in, the earth under your feet. Located at the intersection of lakes Huron and Superior, the island is sculpted perfectly for geological observation—in other words, it’s a great place to see some awesome rocks, ledges, caves, and crevices.
These natural wonders have been formed over millions of years, thanks to the island’s interplay of waves, wind, and ice, which carved out the kinds of rock formations that you’re not likely to find further inland. A changing climate has also altered the shape of the island, with falling water levels exposing more land over time.
Check out these seven must-see geological features on Mackinac Island. Whether you tackle them in a day, or spread them out over a vacation, there’s no wrong time to take in the wonder of this island.
All photos by author unless otherwise noted.
Arch Rock is a postcard window onto the Great Lakes. Standing 147 feet above Lake Huron and framing a view of the water through a perfect oval of suspended rock, it may be Mackinac’s most famous rock formation.
Arch Rock formed 7,500 years ago, and it’s still changing. Tree life grows on flatter parts of the formation, and you can climb out onto a platform along its sides to peer across top. Once you step out as far as possible on the platform, a breathtaking view awaits.
There are multiple ways to reach Arch Rock. But if you’re on bike, cut through the island via Rifle Range road. You can also take the lake path, M-185—but be prepared for 207 stairs up (and 207 stairs down).
Sugar Loaf rock rises out of the forest like a crashed meteor.. But in fact, the tower of rock likely stands so tall because the lake waters once washed away all of the rock surrounding it thousands of years ago—just Sugar Loaf remained strong enough to withstand the erosion.
To reach Sugar Loaf, you’ll need to hike, or bike, along a dirt path called Sugar Loaf Road for maybe a half mile. It’s a loop, so you can’t go the wrong way. Out of the forest, you’ll come to a clearing—and then look on over.
There’s another story behind the rock. In Anishinaabe legend, 10 men asked Manabozho, the divine messenger of the Great Spirit, to grant their wishes. After Manabozho granted the first nine wishes, the last man audaciously asked for eternal life.
Enraged, Manabozho transformed the man into Sugar Loaf, permanently freezing his features into a rock.
Have a glance at Sugar Loaf from the side. Can you make out the profile of a face?
Pro Tip: You can’t climb on Sugar Loaf, but you can make your way up the stairs behind for a better view. Just a few steps up, up, and away is Point Lookout—arguably the best view on the island.
Mackinac Island is home to a split in its natural limestone deposit, which has given way to a ravine deep enough to stand in. The crack-in-the-island is a unique and authentic geological feature caused by the erosion of water.
To reach crack-in-the-island, look on your Mackinac map toward where the Wawashkamo golf course and island airport just about meet. Take State Road to the park, and then look out for a tangle of small trails to the side of the road. Then, just follow Crack-in-the-Island Trail and you’ll stumble upon two geologic wonders (read about the second one next).
Crack-in-the-island used to be even more formidable. But in the 1800s, occupiers used it as a garbage dump.
Pro Tip: This is a terrific spot for pictures—especially in spring and summer, when you’ll see a sea of wildflowers along the path.
Cave of the Woods
Want to escape the rain or soak in the cool air? There’s no better place on the island than Cave of the Woods, located just a few steps away from the crack-in-the-island.
The cool cave retreat was actually once the underside of a beach millions of years ago, when water levels were so high that much of the present-day island would have been submerged. Now hundreds of feet above Lake Huron, Cave of the Woods is a reminder of what Huron’s waters can do.
Getting there is easy. Just follow the instructions for crack-in-the-island and walk around the “crack.” There’s the cave.
Pro Tip: Like crack-in-the-island, this one is further from downtown than it looks. Having a bike for getting there and back is ideal—though not necessary.
Friendship’s Altar is a small tower of limestone, covered in green, unexpectedly rising out of the earth. Just about 14 feet tall, Friendship’s Altar was formed as once-high water slowly receded, washing away soft earth around the limestone.
To get to Friendship’s Altar, follow M-185 going west from downtown. About four miles down (or the halfway point of the loop), you’ll come to an open beach and the intersection of two of Mackinac’s big roads. This is British Landing, aptly named for where the British landed before taking the island without bloodshed in 1812.
And British Landing means that you can dismount from your bikes and follow the signs to Friendship’s Altar. If you don’t see any signs, don’t fret. Just walk up the road that intersects M-185—that would be British Landing Road—and take a left onto the gravel Scott’s Road. Now, you’re just a few steps away, and Friendship’s Altar will be on your right.
Pro Tip: British Landing makes for a fantastic view of crossing ferries, St. Ignace, and the Mackinac Bridge. And while enjoying the history and vista, treat yourself to an ice cream or hot dog from Cannonball Oasis—a cool little summer shack on the island.
A short hike from downtown, the scary-sounding Skull Cave is located at the corner of Rifle Range and Garrison roads. You can’t enter Skull Cave—for good reason, as we’ll get to in a second—but you can see it from behind a fence just a few feet away.
There’s no missing the cave—its mouth looks like a mouth, a crater in an otherwise imposing block of rock. And its history is nothing to sneeze about.
The cave was a burial ground for the Anishinaabe people who first settled on the island. In 1763, English fur trader Alexander Henry rediscovered it as a place to hide during Pontiac’s Rebellion, an uprising from Indigenous tribes. Crouched in the cave, Henry found its floor covered with bones.
Pro Tip: Skull Island is centrally located on the island, close to many other attractions. Use it as a jumping-off point for trails, cemeteries, and even climbing all the way to Fort Holmes—the lesser-known fort perched at the island’s highest point.
Devil’s Kitchen Cave
Arguably the most awe-inspiring of Mackinac Island’s caves, Devil’s Kitchen is hard to miss. Two miles west from Main Street along M-185, you’ll find Devil’s Kitchen directly along the lake-hugging bike path. With two coves—one on top of the other—in the cave, the limestone was carved out during the Nipissing post-glacial period.
What makes this little cubby of Mackinac so stunning? Located right along the lake, shadows and reflections from the water dance inside Devil’s Kitchen Cave. And the tall incision into rock is dimpled with shallow little coveys and divots.
Devil’s Kitchen is named for a legend that the cave housed cannibal giants that would eat anyone who dared enter. Because they’d make fires within the cave, the walls are lined with soot.
Formed 350 million years ago, Devil’s Kitchen is among the youngest of Mackinac Island’s caves.
Pro Tip: Go check out Devil’s Kitchen Cave and then skip on over to Sunset Rock for the perfect way to end the day. Your best avenue will be to walk up Stonecliff Road to the Inn at Stonecliff—a possible dinner adventure as well—and then take one of the trails down.
READ MORE: The History of Mackinac Island Fudge
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